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Mall Wars! L.A.’s New Battleground Includes a $500M Beverly Center Renovation

The war for Mario Batali's Eataly was just the beginning as the city's top shopping centers (Westside Pavilion and Westfield Century City are among them) race to complete nine-figure reboots that will choke the upstarts and lure big spenders back from online.

In spring 2017, Eataly will open at expanded and revamped Westfield Century City mall just yards from CAA. Mario Batali’s massive dining-oriented specialty Italian food emporium had been scouting its debut L.A. location for years before announcing in 2014 that it would take a multistory space at the retail center, alongside new tenants such as Tom Ford. The belle of the commercial real estate ball, THR has learned, was snatched by Westfield late in the dealmaking game from its archrival Taubman Properties, which had been in negotiations with the brand as an anchor for its own $500 million renovation of the Beverly Center, scheduled for completion by the 2018 holiday season. “Westfield made an aggressive push to do it at the end,” says a source with knowledge of the deal. “In the age of the internet, when you don’t need to shop at a mall, marquee experiential retail is the holy grail.” For his part, Eataly USA CEO Nicola Farinetti says he was won over by Westfield’s rooftop: “It’s going to be something we’ve never done before,” he says. “We’re going to brew, we’re going to have a ginormous grill — fire will be the main focus of cuisine up there.”

Welcome to Los Angeles’ ever-escalating mall wars, an arms race of luxury renovations to existing facilities and boutique-brand cool hunting in a region that accounts for 25 percent of California’s $400 billion retail marketplace (over all categories), where shopping center spending has grown nearly 33 percent, not accounting for inflation, since 2010 — almost double the national growth. The city whose sprawl, climate and parking addiction essentially birthed the modern shopping mecca — influential genre architects Victor Gruen (his firm built South Coast Plaza) and Jon Jerde (Universal CityWalk) both were based here — is in the midst of a transformation. Gone are the indoor promenades and a focus on get-you-in-and-out efficiency. Newly prized is any passable Jane Jacobs-ian nod toward authentic social interaction, which just might keep people hanging out in the consumption nexus longer.

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“We’ve reclaimed civic space, we’ve reclaimed the outside, the sidewalk, al fresco dining — 30 or 40 years ago, people, bizarrely, were not seeking that,” says Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture show. “So now it’s about having malls be the place where you think to go to be with friends and family — rather than go to the department store — in an era when people are buying online.” Not such a new phenomenon, really, says stylist George Kotsiopoulos. “Teenagers always used to hang out at the mall,” he notes. “And now everyone’s looking to hang out somewhere. Particularly in a city like L.A., where there’s no main area to watch people.”

All of this validates Rick Caruso, whose flagship outdoor retail center The Grove opened in February 2002 a mile east of the Beverly Center and whose success has helped pioneer a national turn in the sector toward more open-air, streetfront-oriented, urbanism-minded projects. “The Grove has clearly created a road map for them to follow — obviously our competitors have been studying what we do and are responding,” he says. (Caruso since has built a luxury mixed-use midrise condominium a block from the Beverly Center and is at work on another.)

New mall thinking is manifesting itself all over the city. There are the smaller, hipster-skewing projects like Platform, which features high-end brands (Aesop cosmetics, Blue Bottle coffee and Magasin, a men’s store from former Bloomingdale’s men’s fashion director Josh Peskowitz) and opened in March next to Culver City’s Expo Line station. “With most malls, no matter which one you go into, they are all exactly the same. You might as well shop online,” says Rose Apodaca (who wrote the biography of retailer Fred Hayman, known as the godfather of Rodeo Drive, and is the co-author of a recent beauty book with Dita Von Teese), noting that Platform’s painstaking curation upends that assumption. “You may be more patient with a mix of retailers if you get the sense of finding things that are more one of a kind.” Then there are the old-school, office worker-targeted centers like what used to be Macy’s Plaza in downtown L.A. Now retooling and calling itself The Bloc, the structure has ripped its roof off, signed quirky Austin-based cinema Alamo Drafthouse and brought in San Francisco artist Chris Lux to tag colorful murals (among the city’s “most Insta-ready street art,” trumpets one website) along its fortress-like exterior walls.

Meanwhile, Macerich, owner of the drab, sepulchral, 31-year-old Westside Pavilion, an indoor mall on Pico Boulevard a few blocks west of the Fox lot, now is brainstorming its own property overhaul, including opening up the front walls for ground-level retail on Pico while looking to lure an anchor tenant with some serious oomph for the husk that used to be Nordstrom, which has decamped to none other than Westfield Century City. (Macerich declined comment for this story.) “Location-wise, even if [Westfield head] Peter Lowy or Rick Caruso had it, it would be difficult,” says commercial real estate agent Jay Luchs of the space. “You need an Eataly type, a real anchor. It’s not easy. Macerich has a challenge ahead.”

William Taubman, COO of Beverly Center proprietor Taubman Centers, says even city retail stalwarts face that challenge. “It’s obviously a competitive market, and you need to respond to the competition. People’s expectations have changed. The narrative for us was, we were very weak in food. Now we’re going from the weakest to the strongest.” Though it lost out on Eataly, the Beverly Center has hired chef Michael Mina, most recently seen on the Westside at Sam Nazarian’s ill-fated high-concept XIV along the Sunset Strip, to oversee The Street, an artisanal food market — Sbarro-strewn food courts are so last century — that will be focused on tightly curated global street fare concepts. (Mina says his own entry in the smorgasbord will be Middle Eastern/Mediterranean: “It’s going to have these open-faced laffa sandwiches.”) It will be situated on the top floor of the mall beneath a massive, blocklong skylight. “We wanted to do a river on the roof, a light river,” says noted Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, who’s responsible for the Beverly Center renovation (his best-known work is a swooshing marvel of a ceiling at China’s Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport). “It reminds you that you’re here, in L.A.,” he adds.

Indeed, genuflecting toward the greatness of L.A.’s outdoors — its light, its climate, its topography — is now de rigueur among the region’s mall machers. “It’s all about delivering a Southern California experience,” says Westfield COO William Hecht. “This is why we’ve engaged Kelly Wearstler” — the interiors specialist who single-handedly revived interest in Hollywood Regency design a decade ago — “to bring that authenticity through” on its expansion. Says Wearstler of her design plans for the Century City behemoth: “We’re going to provide a sense of rawness and organic sensibility through stone and wood. We’re going to make sure you feel like you are where you are.”

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.